To Force Climate Action, We Need More Than Just Protests

Two years ago, the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion both captured media attention through bold direct action. Since then, Sunrise has combined protest with political work challenging fossil-fuel interests. XR and other groups tepid about electoral politics should do the same.

Supporters of the Extinction Rebellion movement dance to disco hits during a "Discobedience" protest in Berlin, 2020. (Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

In November 2018, two climate activist groups crashed onto the public stage. In Washington, DC, the Sunrise Movement occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office, demanding a Green New Deal (GND). In central London, Extinction Rebellion (XR) seized five bridges, blocking traffic with their camps and getting arrested at an even faster rate than Sunrise.

A month earlier, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report had declared that humanity had only twelve years to act to limit ecological catastrophe. Student strikes led by Greta Thunberg were kicking off across the world; it felt like a new era in climate activism.

Both Sunrise and XR engage in nonviolent direct action, and much of their activity is run by semiautonomous local chapters: Sunrise has over four hundred “hubs” in the United States, while XR has nearly five hundred in Britain and dozens of other countries. Yet they follow starkly different approaches to politics. XR has stayed mostly on the “outside,” pushing for change through protests and cultural renewal, while Sunrise has combined such actions with direct political involvement.

In last December’s British election, XR sat on the sidelines, proclaiming itself “beyond politics” even as parties with a decent climate plan challenged a right-wing prime minister with an abysmal climate record. By contrast, Sunrise mobilized to help oust Donald Trump, a climate change denier, even though the alternative candidate was uninspiring.

XR’s abstention can’t be blamed for the Labour Party’s loss, and Sunrise played a relatively small role in Donald Trump’s defeat. But Sunrise’s electoral efforts have helped propel many pro-climate candidates to victory — and pushed Democrats to take bolder policy stands. Beyond its short-term results, Sunrise has begun to build a political machine that could be a model for other climate activist groups including XR and Fridays for Future (FFF), the main organization behind the school strikes.

XR and FFF are larger and better-known internationally than Sunrise, and this makes it all the more important that they channel their energies strategically. With the planet heating up and less than a decade to act, it’s time for climate activist groups to convert their disruptive capacity into concrete political influence.

The Sunrise Machine

Though run by young people, Sunrise has matured into a political force. Its founders cut their teeth on pipeline and divestment campaigns in the mid-2010s, and they were inspired by Bernie Sanders’s 2016 primary run. They launched Sunrise in 2017 as a hybrid group that would protest and do electoral organizing, including by campaigning for pro-GND, left-wing candidates.

It recently helped New York’s Jamaal Bowman and Missouri’s Cori Bush to upset primary wins over establishment Democrats in blue seats, ensuring their election to Congress. Sunrise also produces savvy ads, such as one that dubbed Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who faced an establishment challenger, the “Green New Dealmaker.”

After Sanders’s defeat, Sunrise could have shut down its operations. Instead, it kept building them to beat Trump and help down-ballot candidates. This summer, Sunrise executive director Varshini Prakash was invited to join the Biden-Sanders unity task force on the climate. She helped convince Biden’s team that a strong climate platform was a political winner, especially with young voters.  Now, Sunrise is in a position to pressure him to follow through on his declaration that climate is his “number one issue.”

Ahead of November’s election, Sunrise reached millions of young voters by phone and through social media. It helped fuel a surge of youth turnout; eighteen- to twenty-nine year olds were a bigger share of the electorate, even as the number of elderly voters also increased.

Young people ultimately put Biden over the top, with “net youth votes for Biden” exceeding his margin of victory in decisive swing states. Meanwhile, the GND had success down-ballot. Ninety-two of ninety-three House cosponsors of the GND resolution won reelection, including four in swing districts. (There are 101 cosponsors in the 435-member House, but several are retiring; fourteen out of a hundred Senators cosponsor the resolution.)

Sunrise’s decision to go all in for Biden was controversial on the Left, but it helped lead to immediate, consequential change, however insufficient. Its bolder efforts may take more time to pay off. Targeting “Red to Green New Deal” seats, it campaigned for eight left-wing candidates taking on Republican incumbents in Congress — but none came close to winning.

Still, it was always going to be difficult to go from zero to GND in just two years. And Sunrise is helping to build networks and institutional capacity for the future.

A Not So Rebellious Rebellion

From the start, XR’s orientation has been rather different. One cofounder, Gail Bradbrook, is a scientist and former NGO project manager. A miner’s daughter, she today lives in Stroud, a prosperous English town with a bobo vibe; she has said she was inspired to start XR after using psychedelics in Latin America.

In 2018, before the bridge-taking in London, Bradbrook and others started giving a “Heading for Extinction” talk across Britain. It was heavy on science and light on power dynamics. “Climate change is not a political issue, it’s a moral issue,” they said.

Some of the same messaging has endured. Last year, my local XR chapter proclaimed itself “A-political” and “neutral” on social media, arguing for “cross-party” solutions. The press team recently wrote on Twitter that XR was “not a socialist organization.”

This approach has doubtless succeeded in drawing in some people who wouldn’t join a left-wing organization or are alienated from politics. It’s also unleashed a surge of energy, tapping into a talent for spectacle among its activists.

Before protests, they “paint the streets” with brightly colored posters, flags, and badges, many adorned with XR’s signature hourglass. During protests, they samba, hula-hoop, and move through synchronized “mourning” rituals (for the dying natural world), all while the police try to remove them from the streets.

Last year, its protests helped prompt the UK parliament to declare a climate emergency and strengthen its decarbonization plan. Yet this didn’t mean substantive climate action. In general, XR hasn’t had the concentrated or measurable political influence that Sunrise has.

On a given week, when major actions aren’t on, XR activists might create community gardens, lobby local councils, or form tree protection brigades at construction sites. This is laudable work, but not enough to bring the drastic structural change that’s needed. XR activists call themselves “rebels” and refer to multiday actions as “uprisings” even when these events’ end times are announced in advance. But what exactly is XR rebelling against?

(Joel de Vriend / Unsplash)

As political ecologist Heather Alberro wrote recently in the Conversation, “[W]ithout a political analysis of the problem, XR risks leading a mass of motivated people nowhere.” Indeed, the people at BP, Barclays, Ineos, and Conservative campaign headquarters can’t be very worried about XR in its current form — it presents little direct challenge to their power. Boris Johnson’s own father, himself a Tory, joined the street protests, as if to stamp them “nonthreatening.”

XR sat out Britain’s December 2019 general election, aside from a few publicity stunts, and refused to draw distinctions between parties. When Labour slightly dialed back its climate commitments due to union concerns that a rapid green transition would hurt workers, XR dressed the party down rather than sizing it up next to the Tories. This revealed a lack of perspective — a puritanical bent — and an unwillingness to seek common ground with the working class.

XR’s main foray into politics has come via its push for “citizens’ assemblies” in which randomly selected juries of non-party, non-experts set policy. It recently lobbied for a Climate and Ecological Emergency bill in Parliament, putting major focus on such assemblies. Very few MPs support the bill.

Citizens’ assemblies, while an interesting idea, are hardly a cure-all. To demand them is to delay addressing the most difficult political questions; it indicates a naïve belief that presenting “the truth” convincingly is enough to effect change. Indeed, “tell the truth” is one of XR’s demands and slogans.

Society will never be a courtroom where facts are adjudicated free from vested interests. Citizens’ assemblies or not, the powerful will frame the terms of debate, and so XR should focus on countering the power of entrenched interests, rather than questioning their morality. Its strategy of rendering climate inaction “criminal” and denouncing “politicians” for “not caring” is little more effective than judging people for using plastic water bottles. It needs to push for a fairer political and economic system.

Disempowering Structure

Fortunately, XR does appear to be moving in this direction. But in order to successfully push for a reordering of power dynamics in society, it needs to sort out its own internal ones.

Neither Sunrise nor XR is perfectly inclusive or democratic. Sunrise supports a just transition and has partnered with worker organizations like Fight for $15 and Raise Up NC, but activists report that its base remains disproportionately white and middle-class.

According to a letter that six of Sunrise’s founders wrote in September, people of color have “experienced tokenization and felt that their voices as leaders aren’t heard at the national or hub level.” Despite these weaknesses, Sunrise has at least built a diverse leadership: roughly half of its hundred staff members are people of color.

XR’s leaders often have trouble even seeing that they sit at the top of power structures, in the organization as in society. These internal issues are a symptom of its wider focus on moral appeals over power dynamics.

At many protests last year, XR activists chanted “police!/we love you/we’re doing this for your children too” — without realizing how much this alienated those with a very different relationship with police. XR’s street tactics and internal culture have ended up glorifying activists who are more willing and able to risk arrest.

This blindness owes to its organizational structure. The call for a nonhierarchical “holacracy” has benefits: the lack of rigidity can be a refreshing alternative to party meetings with dry debates on quorum rules. Yet in reality, XR’s de facto leaders have outsized power, and rank and filers have little way to replace them or hold them accountable. The press team, for example, shapes XR’s image for all the world to see.

Such dominance by unelected insiders is partly the result of what US feminist Jo Freeman once called the “tyranny of structurelessness.” She argues that every group forms hierarchies and that keeping them informal makes it harder to hold leaders accountable: better, perhaps, to have a transparent hierarchy than one that purports not to exist.

In the US, Sunrise has its own structural issues. Like XR, it has no formal membership or dues-paying system: the rank-and-file do not get to choose their leaders. But they are at least chosen in a transparent way, through an open hiring process.

XR, in contrast, is a volunteer-run organization without paid staff. Many of the volunteers are full-time, and the work they put in is admirable. But this setup perpetuates the dominance of those who don’t need paid employment — and makes it harder for people without economic advantages to take on leadership. (XR does give modest living stipends to some coordinators, but only once they’ve established themselves as volunteers.)

Sunrise has adopted the legal structure of a major nonprofit. Its fundraising team brought in about $13 million this year through two entities, a 501(c)3 and a 501(c)4. The latter is less appealing to donors (i.e., provides fewer tax benefits), but allows Sunrise to engage in politics more directly. Sunrise also has a political action committee that receives direct donations.

Though exerting influence in the twenty-first century political arena may require this funding, Sunrise’s professionalization has democratic drawbacks. It risks becoming just another advocacy group, channeling money from foundations that don’t have the same priorities as its activist base, which has little control over how money is spent. Activists have been sidelined in environmental groups before; one political scientist wrote of how they had been used as “organizational wallpaper, a collective backdrop for professional advocacy.”

How XR makes financial decisions is unclear. XR’s leaders have set up two private companies, Compassionate Revolution and Climate Emergency Action, to receive grants and donations, which have totaled at least $2 million since 2018. Those who control the funds aren’t accountable to XR’s rank and file. (The XR press team declined to respond to requests for comment for this article.)

More democracy within XR could change its priorities or even its political approach. A first step would be to learn from a democratic step that Sunrise took. In late 2019, its leaders asked rank and filers to vote on whether to endorse a candidate in the Democratic primaries. They said yes, and selected Sanders. Sunrise then put its institutional resources behind his campaign — coming within striking distance of a monumental victory for the climate movement.

Ideas Beneath the Movements

Any activist group needs a sound theory of change and a clear strategy for gaining influence. Sunrise’s founders spent nine months planning with the help of an activist training institute. They built a strong narrative around justice — intergenerational, economic, racial — and developed a bold, positive vision for the future, with a plan focused on creating jobs and producing clean energy.

They engaged in nonviolent direct actions, while also building political power, partly through elections. They decided not to try to “persuade” the Right, but instead to look for climate “champions” who would refuse political donations from fossil-fuel interests and push for a GND.

Sunrise movement protesting the GOP’s rapid movement to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the US Supreme Court. (Geoff Livingston / Flickr)

XR’s founders, conversely, are stuck on the idea that achieving radical change requires mobilizing 3.5 percent of the population (in the UK, 2.3 million people; in the US, 11.5 million). This figure comes from Erica Chenoweth’s Why Civil Resistance Works. Yet her research focuses on movements against authoritarian regimes, and doesn’t necessarily apply in a liberal-democratic context.

What’s more, this approach relies on the moral authority of those rebelling; middle-class white people can’t expect to engender the same response as oppressed groups who participated in, say, India’s liberation movement. And finally, no single social movement will be enough to address the climate crisis. The most effective groups will be those that partner well with others.

Though its rebranded international outfit rightly calls for a “movement of movements,” XR spent a long time in semi-isolation. Instead of joining the Thunberg-led global climate strike in September 2019, XR scheduled its own rebellion for the next month. And despite recent efforts to reach out to workers of all races, XR hasn’t made inroads with trade unions — remarkably, its proposed bill doesn’t even mention them.

At its worst, XR is more of a moral crusade than a focused effort to exact change. According to a new study, “[M]any XR activists we spoke to had little confidence in victory. As a result, there is a strain of apocalyptic thinking present in the movement. This is evident in its nihilistic artistic expressions and the popularity of Jem Bendell’s work, which suggests that societal collapse, due to climate breakdown, is inevitable.”

In this way, XR looks like failed ’60s movements that focused too much on moral and spiritual one-upmanship — the apocalypse is coming, but it’s not my fault. Indeed, though the group calls for collective action, it maintains a strong strain of individualism. XR and FFF activists are relatively likely to believe in the effectiveness of lifestyle environmentalism, the new study noted.

Sunrise activists have been quicker to recognize that power disparities, and not moral deprivation, are the main cause of the climate crisis — and the best way to solve it is by taking power back. Environmental moralizing doesn’t work; indeed, it can limit the appeal of the movement. Most people will never be inclined to trippy awakenings.

Beyond Protests

Although it’s not always evident from its press team’s rhetoric, XR has moved to the left. Esther Stanford-Xosei, an activist who supports colonial reparations, has taken a leading role. Many branches and chapters have started to partner with racial justice groups, and some have added a “demand” for global justice — calling for a green transition that helps marginalized groups and honors indigenous rights.

The emphasis is evident in XR’s new “Heading for Extinction” talk, much different than the 2018 version. “The world’s most pressing problems are closely interlinked,” it says. “And at the heart of it all is power. Power, financial and governmental, is concentrated in the hands of a very small minority of humanity. Think political leaders, think global corporations, think financial institutions.”

It’s not just rhetoric — XR’s actions have become more targeted. At its most recent rebellion, in September, it held protests at right-wing think tanks that spread misinformation on climate change, and in the City of London (where XR held a “walk of shame” tour explaining the role that financial institutions play in the climate crisis).

XR activists also blocked road access to two of Rupert Murdoch’s printing presses, limiting the circulation of right-wing British newspapers for one day — to draw attention to the fact that the so-called free press is dominated by Murdoch’s News Corp and has a terrible record of reporting on the climate.

Not surprisingly, the establishment pushed back. Both major UK political parties condemned the action, and the government moved to potentially classify XR as an “organized crime group.” One of the billionaires behind the Climate Emergency Fund, a 501(c)3 which gave XR $350,000 last year, also denounced the Murdoch action; the fund will no longer support XR, the Telegraph reported. XR has also just announced a financial disobedience campaign meant to draw attention to the “political economy’s complicity” in the climate crisis.

Yet no matter how well-targeted, protests won’t be enough. Some branches of XR have shown themselves to have a left orientation, but the organization’s leaders remain wary of organizing around a left approach — and haven’t adopted the global justice demand.

Moving forward, XR, like society at large, needs structural change. It must tell the truth about conservative politics, rally around a progressive vision, make movement leaders more accountable, and build an in-house electoral machine.

Sunrise is like a turbine that turns disruption into political power. Other activist groups, like XR and FFF, need to get out the rotors and start learning energy conversion as well. Two years have passed since the IPCC’s grave warning, and every year that passes without change means far more human suffering and ecological destruction. We don’t have time to dream of a world beyond politics.